The schedule doesn’t pause for injuries though. So Mississippi State (9-11, 2-6 SEC) is practicing for Alabama (11-9, 2-6) in hopes the roster does thicken-up ahead of Tuesday’s 8:00 tipoff in Humphrey Coliseum.
As of Monday afternoon a pair of starters were still uncertain. Senior center Gavin Ware missed the Missouri game entirely after another practice concussion. Howland is more optimistic now that Ware (15.7ppg, 7.3rpg) can get back in time for Tuesday.
“Gavin ran around the track, today he’ll practice without contact. We’re hoping he’ll be able to play.”
Point guard IJ Ready (10.2ppg, 4.4apg) did play on Saturday despite a hurting foot and ankle, the result of landing on a South Carolina player’s foot. “It’s more his foot than his ankle. But I don’t anticipate him having any contact today.”
“Both those guys are questionable.”
Thin or not, Mississippi State was able to defeat Missouri 76-62 and get their first true road win of the season. With a pair of SEC victories in the last three chances the Bulldogs have the closest thing to momentum of their league season. They also get to host another of Howland’s first-year SEC peers as Avery Johnson is new at Alabama.
“He’s done a really good job,” Howland said. As for the Crimson Tide lineup, “They have good length and size inside, and that’s a major problem for us.” Also it’s nothing new for the Bulldogs. South Carolina was able to win with inside muscle, though State used quickness to trump the Missouri frontcourt. The difference is unlike those opponents, Alabama has a quality backcourt.
“I love their point guard,” Howland said of Retin Obasohan, whose more a scorer than quarterback most nights averaging 15.6 points on 46% shooting. Obasohan has made good on 29 trey-tries as well, and “He has a body that makes Nick Saban jealous. Justin Coleman usually comes off the bench and leads in assists overall. Also, Howland said, (Riley) Norris is a good shooter as is (Arthur) Edwards. They’re a good shooting team from the perimeter, and take 40% of their shots from three.”
It’s actually 43% of Tide shots are longballs, and they’ve made just about exactly one-third of those attempts. Given that Mississippi State has allowed SEC opponents to hit on just under 40% of their trey-tries, this is not an encouraging matchup. And the treys-allowed rate is distorted as hapless Missouri was just 2-of-25.
Tiger arc-inaccuracy allowed Howland to get away with playing some zone defense again. It’s not what he likes, and three weeks ago the coach foreswore it outright after getting burned at the arc. “I told you I’d never play it another possession.” But with Ware out and a short, numerically and physically, roster Howland defaulted to zone from necessity.
Against Alabama? “It depends on who we have,” the coach said. At the same time Howland clearly expects to go man for this matchup. First, for the better chance of chasing perimeter shooters. Second, because zone hurts rebounding position, though again State whipped Missouri on their own glass.
Much of this was due to the outstanding effort of Quindarry Weatherspoon (10.8ppg). The 6-4 guard has been moved to ‘big’ forward and is playing way above both his size and his age. Weatherspoon posted a first college double-double Saturday with 18 points and 14 rebounds, eight of them offensive boards to set up priceless second-chance points.
“He’s really playing well,” Howland said. “We’ve been saying for quite a while is going to be a really special player here. He’s having a great freshman year.” A great SEC season too, as Weatherspoon is averaging 18.4 points the last five games on 51% shooting. He’s also hit 9 of 21 trey-tries in the stretch.
It’s hard to believe but Weatherspoon’s work out-of-position and his stats have taken the freshman spotlight from touted classmate Malik Newman (13.7ppg). But it was Newman lighting-up Missouri early from long range that set State on the way to winning without Ware.
Newman has averaged 17.8 points the last four games, and in the two wins he has shot 14-of-27 overall and 11-of-18 at the arc.
Howland said he was proud how Ready “gutted it up and played through pain” in the win. Ready went 22 minutes and didn’t score at all with just one assist. But he somehow chased down seven rebounds. Against Alabama Ready may need to stay farther from the rim to cover Tide shooters, which will be a special assignment of senior guard Craig Sword (12.7ppg) in his fourth season of the rivalry.
There aren’t many points to show for it, but Howland is increasingly encouraged by freshman Aric Holman’s work. The youngest forward even drew the start at center against Missouri and gave 16 minutes before picking up a fifth personal. Two points and three rebounds don’t look like much, but “His rim protection was good and he did a decent job protecting the basketball. He’s got to look to be aggressive scoring, sometimes in practices it’s pulling teeth to get him to shoot.”
Finding conference wins was like pulling golden teeth for Mississippi State. Now they have a couple to show for the efforts and injuries and frustrations and Howland has something to build upon in February.
“We’re probably better than our record, at least in my mind. But it was good to get over the hump in the last game.”